No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 15, 2008

#39: Unwelcome Bodies -- Jennifer Pelland

"...You all see your bodies as so permanent."
"But they --"
"-- aren't." (p. 161)


Read for review: [EDIT: Strange Horizons review is here] eleven short stories by a relatively new author (the first was published in 2003). The title is apposite: these are stories about bodies, about touch, about sex and death and apocalypse. About ways in which the body can be changed -- willingly or unwillingly -- and about how we define ourselves by our bodies.

I'll do a story-by-story analysis here, though not in the 'official' review (which this complements, and which I'll link when it appears).

For the Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great (2003)
Death, the fear of sickness, the hunger for touch: two women, one a librarian fearing plague (she'd 'gotten a degree in library services because she loved books. Now she was afraid of them'), one on a holy mission to infect as many as she can.

Big Sister / Little Sister (2005)
This is the story that'll stay with me, lurk in the back of my mind. Like a dark remix of Lori Lansen's The Girls: the story revolted me, not least because both characters are victims. There isn't a way out, or an option of a happy ending. Very powerful.

Immortal Sin (2005)
This felt to me like one of those 'tales with a twist' that surface so often in anthologies of SF from the Forties and Fifties. It's a story about Catholic guilt and the fear of hell.

Flood (2006)
Suicide, tides, twins: craving water in a dried-up world. "The clutter of the former oceans makes its way across the land. Bleached-out bath toys bounce off the train's windows in a rubbery hail." Naming a secondary character 'Marina' felt heavy-handed.

The Call (2006)
A tale told entirely in second person, in questions. "Would you?" There's a story in there, all right, but the form made it feel like a writing exercise.

Captive Girl (2006)
Nominated for the Nebula and shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, this is the story of a girl who's made cyborg to defend her planet, and the woman who loves her -- or loves her disability. Again, very powerful and unsettling: the theme of utter captivity, the claustrophobic relationship between cared-for and carer. Yes, this would have been a very different story if either character had been male.

Last Bus (2006)
The author's notes tell us that this is the earliest of the stories in the book, although it wasn't published until 2006. I do think it's one of the weakest: and again, it feels old-fashioned. Nothing wrong with the writing, but it just didn't click.

The Last Stand of the Elephant Man (2007)
Joseph Merrick, the Victorian 'Elephant Man', is brought forward to a post-apocalypic world where diversity and difference are rare and celebrated, and extreme body modification is the height of fashion. He sees himself from the outside -- and from the inside. This story seems to crystallise some ideas about body and identity. Possibly the best story in the book.

Songs of Lament (not previously published)
On learning to understand whale-song. "I wonder what they're saying? I can't wait to find out." A short, chilling, unnerving tale.

Firebird (not previously published)
Njeri's college roommate turns out to be her idol, a teenage popstar who made a grand gesture of protest against environmental damage. Again, a theme of body/identity: who's burnt, who's burning, what's burnt away. The characterisation of Njeri as inspired fangirl is wickedly accurate.

Brushstrokes (not previously published)
I liked this very much indeed, though (?because) it feels like slash fiction of the best kind: plenty of plot and rich world-building, with just enough romance and sex to clarify the characters and their motivations. Another post-apocalyptic world, another world in which identity is defined by the body and its decorations: at the bottom of the caste system are the Masked; right at the top is the Skinless Empress. On a distant world, media broadcasts from Earth permeate every level of society. (The news from Earth -- "Madonna! Osama! Obama!" -- feels very ... current.)

Those big themes -- sex, death, bodies, the human need for contact -- recur throughout. But there's a strong undercurrent, to me, of fairytale, myth and legend. Seph's journey down to the Masked levels, in 'Brushstrokes', feels like Campbell's 'hero's journey'. Suze, in 'Songs of Lament', wants to be a Prometheus for the whales she loves. Callie's stagename, in 'Flood', is Undine, and I keep feeling that this is a mermaid story I should recognise. Time and again, echoing the myth of Psyche, there are masks that need to be removed before the lover can see the beloved. Pelland's style is clear and sharp: very little elaboration, but the occasional singing phrase, and imagery that resonates long after details are forgotten.

Pelland's notes on the stories are often illuminating ("you should write about things that fascinate you to the point of scaring you"), and while the stories appear as published she's included deleted material, leaving it to the reader to decide whether editorial decisions were justified.

I've been reading some of Pelland's other fiction online and am surprised at the inclusion of weaker stories ('Last Bus', 'The Call') over, for instance, 'MarsSickGirl' or 'Clone Barbeque'. Unwelcome Bodies does showcase Pelland's progress as a writer, and her increasing facility with the short-story form, over the course of a few years: I expect there'll be another collection pretty soon. Meanwhile, much of Pelland's fiction appears online: see her Bibliography page for links.

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